Boxing: Marvelous Marvin says: 'I couldn't be a pretender'

Legend can still feel force of punches from an era when fighters were proud

Back in the Eighties, Mills Lane, a US District Attorney who was one of boxing's best-known referees, famously issued his final command to the combatants as they touched gloves: "Let's get it on!" And in those days they invariably did. Unfortunately, they don't seem to any more.

The big fights the public wants simply aren't happening, largely because of what Lennox Lewis termed "boxing politricks". Getting Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao together, and David Haye doing business with either of the Klitschko brothers, has become a tiresome exercise in futility. It exasperates a great fighter who always got on: Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

"What's up with these guys?" asks the shaven-headed southpaw slayer of ring reputations, one of boxing's legendary world middleweight champions. "Have they no pride? Today's fighters are not as hungry as they used to be. They don't seem to sacrifice as much as we did. Everybody's looking for that easy street and there ain't no easy street. When we fought, it was straightforward, you fought everybody, no ducking, no playing games. You fought the best, and it made you feel good.

"The only question that we had afterwards was: 'Who's next?' The trouble now is that too many fighters seem to want to get out of the game before they get hit too hard.

"You look at some of these guys and they've had only, what, 12 fights? And they are fighting for a title and if they lose that, they can go fight for another title. I call them pretenders, not contenders. They are an embarrassment to real champions like Ali, Frazier and the guys I fought."

Hagler came from the same boxing backyard in Brockton, Massachusetts, as Rocky Marciano and for a golden spell two decades ago he, Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard were boxing's holy trinity. Toss Roberto Duran into the mix and between them they fought each other nine times.

The brutal and bloody bout in Las Vegas between Hagler and Hearns on 15 April 1985 lasted a mere eight minutes but it stunned the boxing world with its undiluted savagery. It is said that the first blistering round was the fiercest ever seen, both slamming sickening punches to the other's head, leaving Hagler with blood pumping out of a deep gash. At the end of the round the referee Richard Steele, alarmed at the amount of blood cascading down Hagler's face, asked him, "Can you see?" Hagler snapped back: "Well, I ain't missing him, am I?"

Just under two rounds later, Steele had to rescue Hearns from being knocked out. At the weigh-in, Hagler had warned him, "You better hope I don't bleed, it only makes me meaner." Now Hagler says: "That fight may have been over a quarter of a century ago but I can still feel those punches he landed on me and I drink a toast to him every time we meet. I am grateful people remember it as one of the all-time great fights. It was definitely the highlight of my career."

That was Hagler's 11th defence of the title he won from Britain's Alan Minter in 1980. Minter had made a pre-fight remark which would probably see him banned today. "There's no way I am going to lose my title to a black man," he vowed. An angry Hagler demolished him in three rounds, causing a riot outside the ring with bottles and glasses being thrown and Hagler being hustled to the Wembley dressing room by police.

He quit seven years later after controversially losing a split decision to Leonard. He remains bitter that Leonard refused a rematch. Nudging 57, he is only 10lb over the 10st 6lb middleweight limit. He grins: "I keep my weight down just in case Leonard ever decides to give me that return."

These days he lives in Milan after falling in love with the country and in particular with Italian lady Kay who was to become his second wife (he has five children from a previous marriage). He now works on behalf of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, "trying to give something back to sport which gave so much to me". He has also appeared in four movies.

"I've been retired 23 years but people still talk about my fights as if they were yesterday," he says. "Who knows anything about most of today's fighters? An old lady came up to me recently and asked: 'Is Mike Tyson still the heavyweight champion?' If I told her that David Haye or the Klitschkos were the champions, she'd have said: 'Who are they?'"

Marvin Nathaniel Hagler changed his name legally to Marvelous Marvin back in 1986, insisting on the spelling of the soubriquet. No doubt because he always was one L of a fighter.